It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks. Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine. I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.
It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole. It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go. Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia. In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me. Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present. (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores. T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.) While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.
Now, here’s the weird thing. A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown. I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution. As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.
But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago. Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World. The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River. And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.
When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation. At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.
History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time. The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two. The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic. In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.
The American history survey distorts time, too. The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction. The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half. There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.
The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either. There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists. The Civil War? That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.
The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.